Out of Control: 28–New Directions and Difficulties, 1998

That fall and into the winter Steve and I and others—Alejandro, Russell, Mike Stanek—worked very hard on the fourth edition of Can’t Jail the Spirit. Once more we contacted the prisoners, typed their new and revised bios, gathered new photos, kept people notified of deadlines, did the layout, raised the money, and all the rest.

Nancy with son Michael Kurshan-Emmer wearing a Sundiata Acoli t-shirt at 1998 Jericho march to free all political prisoners in Washington, DC

It would be our contribution to the upcoming national demonstration organized by the Jericho Movement, the group dedicated to calling attention to and freeing political prisoners in the U.S.

Around the same time a new edition of Walkin’ Steel was produced, now in a newspaper format. Many of the young lawyers and Oberlin grads who had been around during the campaign to stop the Illinois supermax had now cycled out of the committee, some to practice law, others to attend law school or engage in other activist work. A new crop of young people, some of them new Oberlin grads like Liz Goss and Josh McPhee, had joined the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown.

They had yet another set of ideas about how to proceed. Although they respected our long history of struggle, they felt we disproportionately emphasized both the control unit and political prisoner issues. They believed we needed to broaden out to reach people who were concerned with more general prison issues. They wanted to focus on something that affected everyone in the prison system and their families.

Steve and I were more than ready to move over a bit and let the new ideas bloom. CEML then settled on a campaign to stop the gouging of prisoners and their families by telephone companies in cahoots with the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). There was some history to the struggle around the issue. A few years back, a group of family members and activists in Chicago had been meeting to try to do something about the prison phone situation.

In 1996 and 1997 the Prison Action Coalition called for 30-day phone boycotts and received good responses in the maximum security prisons of Pontiac and Stateville, as well as several lesser security prisons where they had contacts. IDOC labeled the boycott “gang activity,” and a number of prisoners involved lost their prison jobs and faced other harassment. In September of 1996 there had been a small uprising of prisoners at Pontiac, who raised the phone gouging, among other issues.

Steve and I were skeptical about the phone-related focus, but thought we should give it a try. It would be a very different model, somewhat like a community organizing approach, except the community was the whole city of Chicago. In order to make this work, we would need to organize the families of prisoners to play a major role. Never before had CEML targeted people of color as our main constituents. Consistent with earlier positions taken by Malcolm X and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), we always felt it was our role and responsibility to reach white people and encourage them to pay attention to and oppose racism. We therefore felt there were inherent problems in this new suggested direction, but we were willing to give it a try.

For about a year we held meetings centrally located in downtown Chicago. These were difficult, because people had to travel far to reach the meetings, and for working people it ate up their precious time. It was difficult for committee members, because we didn’t want to impose an agenda on the family members, but we had more time, resources, and easier logistics to deal with which gave us an advantage. The nature of the group was very porous; there was a good deal of turnover. All of this meant that while we tried to be extremely democratic, our meetings were not very productive or effective. In my opinion, the work suffered from lack of leadership by people of color.

In the past, although we were a predominantly white group, we had a tremendous working relationship with a highly organized and sophisticated Puerto Rican community and its leadership. This made all the difference in the world. However, the phone campaign was not a priority for our Puerto Rican compañeros. In a decision that we completely understood and agreed with, they had made a conscious decision to focus their energies in a laser-like way most specifically on the campaign to free the Puerto Rican political prisoners. And in 1999 Clinton commuted the sentences of most of them. It was an amazing victory for a determined, mass campaign by the Puerto Rican people in the U.S. and on the island, along with their allies.

Margaret Burroughs at tribute to José López, 1999

Also around that time the government intensified a protracted COINTELPRO-like attack against José López launching a nasty smear campaign with the aid of an agent provocateur. Steve and I initiated a huge celebration on José’s birthday in an attempt to stave off any indictments that might be on the district attorney’s agenda. José wrote his own reflections on his activities that we printed in the program guide along with messages of support. We also organized a delegation of “VIPs” to visit the district attorney in person.

Meanwhile CEML continued the work of the telephone campaign. The legal side of the campaign was taken up by several lawyers who were optimistic about the filing of a class action. Steven Seliger, a civil litigator and friend of Michael Deutsch, zealously took up the challenge. However, he was eventually defeated in court by a powerhouse cabal of corporate attorneys and a panel of judges that went along with them. So we seemed to be losing right out the door.

The National Campaign to Abolish Control Unit Prisons was also having difficulty developing a coherent strategy. There just weren’t the necessary resources or perhaps the will to marshal them for that purpose. I suggested that we hold a youth institute in Chicago the summer of 1997 to train young people from around the country to become prison activists. We wrote a proposal and submitted it to the Crossroads Foundation, but in 1997 family health and work issues intervened and I was unable to follow through on this project. CEML’s Mike Staudermaier resubmitted the proposal to Crossroads Foundation for the following summer, 1998, and they were interested in funding it.

We put out the call for young people to apply, and the applications were coming in nicely. However, it was impossible for the committee to sustain such a project. I had hoped to be able to lead the day-to-day effort full time in the summer. In the past I had to work every summer, and this one turned out to be no different. Nobody else was able to step forward and take up the challenge. I was despondent that we had to turn down the Crossroads grant. After that disappointment and the difficulty launching an Emergency Response Network, I became quietly disheartened with both the Committee and the National Campaign.

Despite heroic efforts by several individuals, such as AFSC’s Bonnie Kerness, the national process failed to advance substantially. Work in local areas continued, but we were never able to become the national force we envisioned. Two things happened that presaged the closing down of the Marion Committee. The first was, after 14 years, the hiring of a person to work as a paid, very part-time, employee. Never before had we done anything like that, preferring to burn both ends of the candle to get the work done with volunteer labor. That was a clue that things were changing. As a group we began to rely more and more on “paid staff.” Perhaps that would have been effective except we only had a part of one such person!

The second event sealed the fate. I cannot remember exactly how it finally ended, but I think it was with a whimper, not a bang. For all those years, in lieu of an office, I had been in charge of picking up the mail and paying for the upkeep of the post office box. Finally, I turned over the key to somebody else. One day that person forgot to pay the bill. We lost the P.O. box that we had had for years and years. It was only symbolic, but at that moment I knew that it was just a matter of time. We limped along for a while, but the handwriting was on the wall. Within months the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown was no longer.

Reflecting on the experience has reminded me of all the questions that arise in such work, and how there are no easy answers. Yet the work required answers, at least tentative ones to move ahead. Volunteer labor versus paid staff? National versus local emphasis? Where is there political leverage—the streets, the courts, the legislature? How much of our own particular political view should we argue for in the work? To what extent do the initiators of the work retain control of the direction of the work? To what extent do we open it up to whoever wants to participate? Perhaps most importantly, how can white people work in respectful alliance with people of color?

Next: Conclusion
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